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Oliver and Rhodes are the latest members of an order of relievers with a rare skill that has allowed them to sustain unusually long careers: the ability to get lefthanded hitters out. The order's patron saint is Jesse Orosco, Rhodes's teammate with the Orioles from 1995 through '99, whose career lasted 24 seasons. Orosco retired in 2004, at 46, after a record 1,252 appearances. Those are marks that Rhodes says he is chasing. To pitch forever, you have to want to pitch forever. Rhodes wants to pitch forever.
All the decisive blows are struck lefthanded," wrote the early 20th-century German philosopher Walter Benjamin. While this is not entirely true in baseball, it is disproportionately so. Last season 656 players had at bats hitting righthanded, 381 lefthanded. Of the top 30 hitters as measured by OPS, however, 17 were exclusively or predominantly lefthanded.
Of baseball's top 30 alltime OPS leaders 15 are lefthanders or switch-hitters who were more productive from the left side, including the top four of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Barry Bonds. Much of this stems from the fact that batters almost always hit better against opposite-sided pitchers, and that there are—naturally, as only about 10% of people are lefthanded—many more righthanded pitchers than lefties.
For most of baseball history, managers were helpless in crucial situations against lefthanded sluggers. Then, in the mid-1980s, came the rise of the LOOGY—an acronym, for Lefthanded One-Out Guy, that is as distinctive as it is inexact, as few relief appearances consist of just one out. If the LOOGY was not invented by Tony La Russa, the former White Sox, A's and current Cardinals manager, it was popularized by him through his use of lefty relievers from Rick Honeycutt in the early 1990s to, currently, 37-year-old Trever Miller. Managers' deployment of lefty specialists has increased steadily for the past quarter century. In the series A History of the LOOGY, published in 2005, Hardball Times writer Steve Treder defined a "hard-core LOOGY" as a lefthanded relief pitcher who appears in at least 20 games in a season and averages less than one inning and fewer than 0.2 saves per game. Between 1987 and '92 there were fewer than 20 each season. Between 1992 and 2000 there were fewer than 40. Between 2001 and '08 there were never more than 47. In '09 there were a record 54, and last season, 53.
The insatiable hunger of managers for LOOGYs has led some to rely on players whose ability to get lefthanders out is more theoretical than practical—or, at least, is mitigated by the LOOGYs' ineffectiveness against righthanded batters, often pinch hitters, that they sometimes must face. Among pitchers who made more than 20 appearances last year, four of the 10 worst ERAs belonged to LOOGYs. George Sherrill, for instance, appeared in more than a third of the Dodgers' games. He finished with an ERA of 6.69. Lefties hit .192 with an OPS of .573 in 85 plate appearances against him. Righties? In 95 plate appearances they clobbered Sherrill for a .427 average and 1.223 OPS.
Still, lefthanded batters hit lefthanded pitchers worse (to a cumulative league average of .242 last season) than righties hit righties (.254). That stems, says Orioles manager Buck Showalter, from unfamiliarity, from the fact that there simply aren't all that many human beings who can throw a baseball well with their left hand. "Nobody sees 'em much," he says.
This year Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is shelling out some $9.2 million to LOOGYs. The plan was for manager Joe Girardi—whose love of playing matchups is well known to anyone who has ever watched him wear a brown path between his binder of statistics and the pitching mound—to have three at his disposal. Damaso Marte and Pedro Feliciano, however, are both injured, leaving Boone Logan as the Yankees' last LOOGY standing. "It's not like with them being hurt, we can just go out and get another lefty," says Logan. "There isn't anybody."
"The demand is high," agrees Oliver. "The supply is low." The natural shortage of effective lefthanded relievers—last year just 15 of the 53 specialists had an ERA under 3.00—is one reason for the longevity of players such as Oliver and Rhodes. (Of those 53 specialists 28 were 30 or older, and 11 were older than 34.) Another reason is that their job limits wear on their arms. Oliver and Rhodes throw around 1,000 pitches in a season, less than 30% as many as the game's top starters.
"I remember Dwight Gooden pitching eight innings, giving up one or two hits, and then I'd go in there and throw five pitches," says Jesse Orosco, now 54 and living in San Diego. "Everyone would be like, Oh, jeez, go get Jesse some ice." The development of the lefty specialist came along at just the right time for Orosco, against whom lefthanded batters hit .209. Orosco pitched as many as 110 innings in a season in the early 1980s, but no more than 57 between 1991, when he was 34, and his last season in 2003—when lefties still hit only .231 against him. "I believe that becoming a lefty specialist gave me an extra eight years in the big leagues," he says.
After opening the season with six games in balmy Arlington, the Rangers flew north for a 10-day road trip, enduring a stretch of cold and rain. While none of them liked the weather, few liked it less than Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes. "My whole body aches on rainy days," said Rhodes, as they waited out a downpour in Baltimore.